2016-03-02 / Home

Nelly Toll recounts trip to Berlin for historic exhibit featuring her art


German Chancellor Merkel (left) talks with Nelly Toll in front of her art on display in Berlin. 
Photo by DPA. German Chancellor Merkel (left) talks with Nelly Toll in front of her art on display in Berlin. Photo by DPA. As a small child, Nelly Toll painted colorful, joyful scenes depicting a world at peace. In real life, however, the seven-year-old and her mother were holed up in a tiny room in a Christian family’s home in Nazi-occupied Poland. The danger of discovery hung in the stale air.

“It was all make-believe, all fantasy,” Toll explained about the ethereal scenes she created with a modest watercolor set and pencils during 13 months in hiding. The artwork includes fanciful girls holding hands, a tranquil farmhouse, poppy fields and children in school.

“I called them my paper friends,” she said. “See this one with the friendly villagers? Meanwhile the villagers wanted to kill us. That terrific dog? I was actually scared to death of him.”

More than 70 years after she created the art, the long ago experience of passing time by painting and writing accompanying stories is now like a surreal dream, just barely a recallable memory at this point in her life.

Fortunately, some 60 of those pictures have been preserved. And for the first time since the Holocaust, two of her favorites are currently included in a groundbreaking exhibit at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Israel’s Yad Vashem, along with Bild, a major German newspaper, organized the traveling show featuring 100 works by 50 Holocaust-era artists to mark the 50th year anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany.

Never before has a traveling exhibition of original art of this size and stature from Yad Vashem’s collection left Israel.

“In spite of their despair, the Jewish artists hoped that if they would not survive, at least their work would remain and bear witness to the atrocities they experienced,” said Eliad Moreh Rosenberg, director of the Yad Vashem Art Department and curator of the exhibition. “Now, more than 70 years later, these works are exhibited in the capital of Germany, in a national museum. The memory of these very artists, who were once persecuted and murdered by the Nazi German rule, is being honored and their art celebrated. To think that the exhibition is also presented in Hebrew is absolutely incredible and adds another symbolic meaning to the event.”

Toll and her husband Erwin traveled to Berlin to take part in opening night festivities Jan. 25, sharing the stage with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her role was significant. Of the contributing artists, half perished in the Holocaust. The Voorhees resident is the sole survivor—the last to be able to represent these artists.

For Toll, at first reluctant to travel to the country where Hitler’s plans to wipe out worldwide Jewry took hold, the experience was overwhelmingly positive. Won over by the fact that she would share the stage with Merkel, she agreed to the five-day, all-expenses paid trip.

Berlin, she said, was breathtakingly beautiful. Her hosts treated them as dignitaries and, most incredible of all, was the chance to spend time with Merkel.

“I felt very comfortable with her,” Toll said of Merkel. “She’s quite a remarkable woman, very strong with her proclamations of the importance of fighting prejudice, treating people equally and emphasizing Germany’s friendship with Israel.”

Although she did not actually talk at the gala event, she said she was interviewed by dozens of European journalists, all of whom spoke impeccable English. She also watched school groups go through the exhibit to learn about the Holocaust, amazed that what was a defining experience of her life to them was “a history lesson.”

The pictures chosen were winnowed from Yad Vashem’s collection of approximately 10,000 works of art and artifacts donated by survivors and their families. They show “the power of the human spirit and the tension between the artists’ desire to document reality and their need to take flight to the realms of imagination, beauty or faith,” said Marissa Fine, Yad Vashem spokeswoman.

The majority is dark, depicting scenes of barbed wires and the misery of everyday life of the starved laborers. In that respect, Tolls’ colorful, happy scenes truly stand out.

“Nelly’s vivid works perfectly illustrate the power of art to transcend the cruel reality and express with colors and brushstrokes a world of fantasy and freedom,” explained Fine.

As an adult, Toll continues to paint, but her work nowadays— albeit still colorful—is far more abstract. A traveling exhibit of her more mature works, “Imagining a Better World: The Artwork of Nelly Toll,” is currently on display in San Antonio, Texas, where she will be lecturing.

She is also an adjunct professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, where she teaches a Holocaust course. In addition, Toll is an active speaker with the JCRC’s Goodwin Holocaust Museum and Education Center, of which she was a founding member.

Beyond painting and lecturing, she is also a successful author. Among her most widely known books, a 1993 childhood memoir, “Behind the Secret Window,” won seven awards, received a full-page book review in the New York Times and has been translated into Chinese and Flemish. Moreover, an independent filmmaker has created an Indiegogo fund to help produce a documentary on Toll’s life. The film crew traveled with the couple in Germany to document the opening.

The exhibition, “Art from the Holocaust: 100 Works from Yad Vashem Collection,” will be on display until Apr. 3 at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. .

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